Roman, Kaia (2017). The Joy Plan: How I took 30 days to stop worrying, quit complaining, and find ridiculous happiness. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks. ISBN-13: 978-1-4926-4876-5
This book, available in bookstores July 11 2017, is a fun, inspiring autobiographical account of how a married 40-something mother and business woman began a personal experiment to bring more peace and happiness into her life after a business venture failed. At the time, she was stressed, angry, frustrated and out of synch — in just the ways most of us are when things aren’t going well. She was actually pretty depressed. Roman took the time to reflect on how she was really feeling and decided to give herself a month to notice what feels good and what doesn’t in an effort to build a way of living that centers on what feels good. As her focus shifted, she found stress, guilt and obsessions began to melt away, while feelings of positivity, calmness, connectedness and, well, joy, expanded. Her book is the story of her journey, written as an enthusiastic, motivating, step-by-step guide that others can easily follow. Full of advice and exercises for readers to try, it’s very up-beat. There are references to scientific research that support or explain various ideas. Chapters are short, clear and laced with personal anecdotes.
Roman opens with a short section about getting to know oneself and discovering the nature of our bothersome inner voice. I found these chapters surprisingly engaging and they stimulated intriguing self reflection. Toward the end, she stresses the importance of distinguishing between the needs of extravert and introvert styles. In some ways this seems like a simplistic choice, since surgency (degree of extroversion) is just one of the traditional personality features, but Roman centers on it because it can guide readers to notice whether social activities or individually-centered activities are more calming and restorative and can use the insight to develop their own joy plan. She then moves on to the basic plan.
The Joy Plan centers on gratefulness and mindfulness plus attending to what brings pleasure and physical well-being. These are of course well-known and time-honored practices. (Live Gratefully is one of the Guiding Principles at Insights For Parents and we also have articles on mindfulness.) Her central theme is that in just 30 days we can create new more positive habits for how we experience life. What I like about Roman’s approach is the simple, fun, open way she engages with the ideas. I would have liked to see a little more discussion on the science of gratitude and the neuroscience of “re-wiring.” For example, reference to highly accessible works by psychologist Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude, is curiously absent. Reference to writings by popular neuropsychologist Rick Hanson could have provided good clear descriptions of how we can build new neural structures to attract things like positivity and happiness. Roman talks about the amygdala, a part of the brain crucially involved in the experience of emotions, but presents a very simple view of it. She centers on its role in registering potential dangers and of triggering fear and flight reactions in response to cortisol, but doesn’t talk about ways other chemicals, such as the neuropeptide oxytocin, can modulate activity in the amygdala by muting threats and actually amplifying positive experiences. (Elsewhere in the book she talks about oxytocin in connection with affection.) Similarly, Roman misses exciting newer research, for example the work of distinguished professor Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, revealing that areas in the cerebral cortex, the “thinking” part of our brain, also influence how the amygdala reacts. Our emotions and responses are actually very complex. But these are minor criticisms. Roman is intrigued by science and clearly reads widely, but she is not a scientist, nor does she claim to be, and her references to research should be viewed as providing some general background and validity for her ideas and for pointing the way for readers to explore more on their own if they wish. For the most part, her “big picture” of neuroscience is pretty accurate.
The third section of the book provides brief chapters on managing various challenges, beginning with the dampening effects of PMS, as well as ways to draw inspiration from a close circle of friends and from our children. There’s a terrific chapter about shifting away from the habit of complaining that ought to be required reading for everyone! The final chapters are upbeat comments about living with and sharing joy. The appendix is the “How To” guide readers will want — a set of step-by-step exercises to build their own joy plan.
Readers will feel inspired, hopeful and probably motivated to give this simple but potentially deep reaching plan a try. And they will find Roman’s candid self disclosures reassuring. Many of the suggestions are actually in line with Buddhist psychology or with fields of positive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and some readers may want to explore other writings as well. What’s special about this book is its clear, positive, reassuring tone, and fun can-do approach. I’ll certainly be recommending it to some of my students and clients. Try it and see what happens.
♥ We’d love it if you share your experiences with your own Joy Plan in the new Forum section of Insights For Parents!!
~ AD ~
Davidson, R. J. with Begley, S. (2013). The Emotional Life Of Your Brain. New York: Plume Books.
Emmons, R. (2008). Thanks! How practicing gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The new science of contentment, calm and confidence. New York: Harmony Books.